Getting It Wrong, Making It Right: A Call to White Helping Professionals

Audre Lorde famously wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and in 2020, few passages ring truer. According to the National Association of Social Workers, the profession is meant to “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people.” We want to help clients and organizations identify tools for survival, healing, and growth, but what we say we’re about and what we’re actually doing don’t always line up. The SWHelper-run Anti-Racism Virtual Summit on September 16 and 17 in 2020 offered a space for social workers and other helping professions to reflect on and rebuild our toolboxes. Speakers Crystal Hayes and Dr. Jennifer Jewell used their workshop, Dismantling White Supremacy in Social Work, to explore the field’s racist history and to offer steps that providers can take to transform our work. (You can learn more about this year’s Anti-Racism Virtual Summit here, taking place October 26th and the 27th.)

In last year’s event, Hayes, MSW, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut, and Jewell, Ph.D., the Director of Social Work at Salisbury University, depicted a steep uphill battle from complicity to transformation, initiated by progressive leaders but in need of more support. Hayes, a Black feminist reproductive justice advocate, opened the workshop with a powerful reflection on colonialism and the cultural genocide of Indigenous and First Nations people, whose sacred land we occupy. In truth, many of our struggles (colonialism, police brutality, and the climate crisis, to name a few) share the same root problem: white supremacy. Critical race theorist Frances Lee Ansley characterized white supremacy as the systematic hoarding of power and resources by White people paired with widespread views of Whites as dominant and non-Whites as subordinate. This is the foundation on which the social work profession was built and the fire from which many “helping” tools were forged. 

Deep-Roots

Hayes’ call for an intersectional, decolonized approach to social work requires us to take off our rose-colored glasses and take a hard look at our origin story. Jane Addams, often lauded as the mother of social work and a leader for suffrage (a movement imbued with racism), was no saint. Addams, the 1931 recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and a celebrated figure even today, was also an example of segregation, paternalism, and gatekeeping in action. It is not enough to quickly admit these flaws and move on; we need to sit with the full weight of the damage inflicted, to understand how deep our racist roots reach. There is no quick fix for the discomfort we feel, but we can learn and grow from it. Less than 100 years later, the field is still dominated by White women, beneficiaries of white supremacy just as Addams was.

From segregated settlement houses to the sanctioned kidnapping of Indigenous children and disparate rates of removal of Black children from their families, to eugenics and the forced sterilization of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, our field has been using tools of oppression, not liberation. All signs point back to white supremacy: these disparities happen in settings where social workers hold power and control decision-making. We see ourselves as progressive saviors, but we have also done deep harm, not just healing. These legacies are not a relic of our past, either. They have lived on through redlining, internment camps, prisons, and the ICE detention centers where women today still endure needless hysterectomies under the supervision of doctors who were spoon-fed covert racism in their training. Health and economic outcomes from COVID-19 show plainly that racism still touches all the spaces where social workers practice. 

Evolving the Social Work Profession

The “ah-ha” moment of Hayes’ and Jewell’s presentation emerged when Jewell gets at the difference between non-racist and anti-racist. Ibram Kendi teaches that anti-racism is a verb, and non-racism does not exist at all. As Jewell put it, “kind does not equal anti-racist.” Kindness and decency are not liberation tools, but anti-racism – actively working to take down oppressive systems – is. Social work did not begin as an anti-oppression movement, but it can become one. Research consistently shows that the whole profession needs an overhaul. Not sure where to start? Here are a few places to focus your attention:

  1. Education access and integrity. We can look upstream to the racialized K-12 opportunity gaps and school to prison pipeline that create barriers for future change-makers. Academic institutions must make schooling affordable; pursuing an MSW requires wealth or strong credit, but wealth is directly connected to race because of white supremacy, perpetuating the cycle. Student unions can demand anti-oppression commitments from field placement sites and protest the exploitative norm of unpaid internships
  2. Policy reform. Social workers need to be explicitly anti-racist and reflect on how our identities and biases help or hinder our effectiveness in clinical and macro roles alike. There is a time and place for us to surrender our privilege as much as there is a time to leverage it for change and reform in law enforcement, child welfare, and the many other settings where we operate. 
  3. Decentering whiteness. In schools, we can decolonize curricula to showcase the contributions of BIPOC providers in social work theory, research, and practice. In our agencies, we should prioritize the recruitment, retention, and promotion of people from the communities directly impacted by racial oppression. We can look to community-led revolutions like Black settlement houses, the Black Panther Party, and BLM for best practices on equity and healing. 
  4. Accompliceship and accountability. Being accomplices against white supremacy means reconsidering how we share the air – are we whitesplaining oppression to BIPOC clients and colleagues but staying silent when oppression occurs, expecting them to call it out? Racism going under our radar is not an excuse – it is a symptom of the problem. Most of all, when we get it wrong (as we all do), we must be accountable and commit to doing better.

Like most revolutions, the charge is being led by young people: doctoral and graduate students in the field, community organizers, and clients who experienced harm at the hands of oppressive systems. Not only White social workers but all White “helping” professionals have an ethical responsibility to unpack our toolboxes and to get rid of what’s broken. After all, liberation work is about impact, not intent. Some people would call a hammer a tool, and others would call it a weapon; who holds it and how they swing it is what makes the difference.

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